Word of the Year: littoralization

Wednesday, 20 November, 2013

We have to admit that “selfie” is not just a more popular choice, but it’s also easier to spell than “littoralization”. The phenomenon of people snapping smartphone self-portraits and then uploading the photos to social media websites is very much in synch with our narcissist times and research shows that the frequency of “selfie” in English increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. By choosing “selfie”, the Oxford Dictionaries were reflecting the reality of a language that’s being driven by innovation.

And “littoralization”? It means the tendency of things to cluster on coastlines. Today, 80 percent of our planet’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, and of the world’s ten largest cities, all but two are on a coastline or a coastal delta. The term came to our attention when reading Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen, and he gives it a central role when explaining the origins of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when Pakistani terrorists killed 164 people in a merciless crime against civil society. Kilcullen writes, “the attack could only have occurred in a highly networked, urban, littoral environment — precisely the environment that that’s becoming the global norm.” After Mumbai, Kilcullen turns his attention to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, located on the Indian Ocean coast, and he introduces the reader to the word “urbophobia”, which was used by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah when describing the state of the city. “If Mogadishu occupies an ambiguous space in our minds and hearts,” Farah wrote in 1988, “it is because ours is a land with an overwhelming majority of pastoralists, who are possessed of a deep urbophobia. Maybe this is why most Somalis do not seem unduly perturbed by the fate of the capital: a city broken into segments, each of them ruthlessly controlled by an alliance of militias.”

Further up the coast, another alliance of militias turned the town of Eyl into a pirate haven at the beginning of this century. The raiders would sail their hijacked ships to Eyl, take their hostages ashore and hold them until a ransom was paid. That was the piracy strategy for the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama but the crew thwarted the plan and the result is now showing in cinemas near you. Both Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader Muse deliver fine performances in the film of the story. At one point, Captain Phillips says, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.” And Muse replies, “Maybe in America, maybe in America.” Which brings us back to littoralization and David Kilcullen, who lists the megatrends — population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness — that will “define the environment for future conflict, and for every other aspect of life, in the next generation. How do we react to this? How should we think about the coming environment, how can we prepare it, and what can we do about it?”

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